Last week I read an opinion article by a popular journalist, Azuka Onwuka, where he expressed fear that our country may indeed be proving irredeemable. He compared our situation with what obtains in developed countries to show how far we have strayed from the path of decency such that one is truly disturbed as to whether there will ever be a way out.
In comparing the attitude of an average Nigerian with that of his counterpart from a developed nation, he cited, as an example, the fact that while a citizen of such countries willingly and spontaneously (i.e. as a matter of habit) obeys traffic regulations whether there is presence of an enforcement authority or not, an average Nigerian is in the habit of observing no norms while on wheels. The writer’s point is that developed countries are developed because everybody, leaders and citizenry alike, has imbibed the right thing and is doing it as a matter of habit.
I believe this writer has said it all. However, I wish to further illuminate the points he attempted to make by reiterating what I have several times said in this column: that our reward system is such that discourages doing the right thing while encouraging doing the wrong thing. It’s this lopsided reward system that has been producing the sort of anti-developmental behaviour which Mr. Onwuka complained of in his write-up.
It was Prof. Chukwuma Soludo who stated that Nigeria is the only country where you apologize for excellence. I have seen this not once in relation to traffic conduct. A driver would approach a traffic light area and decide to wait till the red light gives way even though there are neither police officers nor traffic officers present, then other road users behind would start harassing him with horn and shouts to keep moving and stop “delaying” traffic. I have actually seen a driver somewhere in Lagos storm out of his car to shout at such a law-abiding road user and the latter was practically pleading for his understanding. I’m certain I have witnessed such an apologetic response from law-abiding drivers in several other instances. Apologizing for excellence.
In a place like Lagos, careful driving is derided as being “too gentle” and lacking the street wisdom and grit to survive in that jungle of a city. We have so much normalised disorderliness and cutting of corners that standing patiently on the queue and waiting for one’s turn is at best easily termed lacking smartness and at worst condemned as sheer foolishness.
In our clime, the pressure to do the wrong thing is so much. In the worst scenarios, doing the right thing even attracts stigma. For instance, there’s always this expectation that once you’re appointed to a public office, you must end up building mansions and buying a fleet of cars. Even when this expectation is not explicitly voiced out, it’s always implicit in the way we react to news of such appointments – “he’s so lucky, his family will never suffer again,” “suffering has ended for her and her family,” “God has finally remembered him” etc. are typical expressions common in such instances. It’s also not uncommon to hear people express sentiments like “he was a perm sec for years and couldn’t achieve anything meaningful,” “she was a commissioner for four years and couldn’t even help her people” etc. Needless to say, the action words in those expressions, “achieve” and “help”, connote nothing but stealing the public funds or circumventing due process for personal gains and for granting favours (such as gifts, contracts and jobs) to kit and kin.
Truth be told, no informed person can honestly believe that any public official can, using personal resources, foot the amount of bills often expected of such officials. For instance, the salaries of commissioners and ministers are still much lower than those of some corporate executives in banks and other private firms, yet these government figures are always considered as being more financially privileged. What is then the source of this privilege? The answer is simple: the commissioners and ministers have access to an unlimited flow of public funds which can be spent with little or no thrift. Similarly, the salaries of federal and perm secs are nowhere near the popular expectation in terms of bills they’re capable of footing.
The implication of this topsy-turvy reward system is that our society remains incurably dysfunctional. Rewarding right conducts and sanctioning wrong ones is an irreplaceable powerful instrument which human society has, from the onset, employed for maintaining stability, sanity and progress. Its commonest manifestation is in the law and its complements of police, courts and prison as well as morality with its formal and informal paraphernalia of enforcement. Sadly, we as a people appear to be repudiating this perennial instrument of social order in favour of normlessness.
As I once wrote in this column, we always complain about flawed elections while neglecting the reality that our electoral system does not reward playing by the rule. If you play by the rule, you lose. A politician friend once told me that electoral wisdom lies in knowing that no matter how popular you’re as a candidate you must not make the mistake of allowing your opponent to out-rig you. People are not rewarded for garnering the majority of lawful votes and people are not punished for stealing votes. It therefore becomes the survival of the fittest.
This same pattern reflects in other facetes of societal competition. For example, when it comes to securing jobs, no one is interested in your competence but whom you know. Hence, just like a popular candidate at elections, even the most competent applicant seeks to rely on favouritism. Survival of the fittest.
A university lecturer whom I consider one of the best in terms of research competence once told me he was looking for connections at the TETFund office to facilitate his getting of a research grant. He has discovered that competence is practically useless in obtaining such reward. Imagine the level of negative effect this culture would have been having on the quality of research output over the years.
Several years ago, I read a newspaper column where a university lecturer was lamenting that sycophancy was fast replacing academic excellence as a means of career success in the ivory tower. He complained that lecturers who get financially successful are those that flock around the Vice Chancellor and singing his praises as against those who’re diligent with classroom teaching and improving their research and overall competence. The former are given “juicy” portfolios in the university and have privileged access to grants and other financial rewards. Conversely, in the best universities in the world, more successful academics are the competent and professionally diligent ones. They attract the biggest grants and/or are placed in charge of such endowments made in their universities. This healthy reward system ensures a healthy and productive system.
Our lopsided reward system ensures that we merely have a goal as a people but are never on the right path to achieving it. Whenever I hear about the National Space Research and Development Agency (NSRDA), a body set up to launch our nation into space exploration, I get amused knowing that typical of our public institutions, that agency must have been populated with persons recruited not because of their excellence in mathematics, physics, engineering and other relevant disciplines but for their being relatives, friends and lovers of those that matter. Was that what America, Russia and others we want to compete with in space science did to get to their enviable heights?
We need to answer the above question truthfully. Unfortunately, profound questions like this are not usually raised in our national discourse. I consider the last general election short in quality discourse because of our failure to foreground these fundamental issues of governance that would ensure we make progress on areas like economy and security which dominated discussion. And like I always say, discussing these critical issues will orientate our people rightly and keep them in the right mindset to receive our much expected political Messiah whomever he/she may be and whenever he/she may come. Otherwise, there’s a real risk that we may not understand the message of this Messiah and may therefore stone him/her.
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.